FoxNews.com recently published an op-ed from the Heritage Foundation’s Jay Greene claiming children in America were being subjected to “proselytization by left-leaning teachers” intent on providing instruction on “controversial topics, such as critical race theory and gender identity.” The answer, Greene suggested, was the expansion of policies favoring private and charter schools like Education Savings Accounts. These policies, which threaten to drain money from the public education system, are often promoted by organizations like Heritage that seek to decimate the American public school system in the name of right-wing ideology and profit.
The past year saw a resurgence in conservative attempts to use the demonization of the LGBTQ community in order to ideologically capture the issue of education. It came through a renewed focus on school board races, bans on books and curriculum discussing race and LGBTQ identity, and the passage of legislation threatening to force LGBTQ educators from their teaching positions.
Integral to these attempts to reshape public education are anti-public education activists who seek to divert taxpayer dollars from public K-12 schools to institutions with less oversight and sometimes a far-right curriculum.
Organizations with vested interests in charter schools latch onto latest culture war panic to push for school privatization
Greene works for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank actively engaged in fighting LGBTQ rights through propaganda campaigns. Heritage content regularly pushes an anti-gay and anti-trans ideology alongside pro-charter school and anti-public school talking points. In June, when the organization sought someone to write its embarrassingly inept study attacking gender-affirming care for trans youth, it chose Greene, whose greatest claim to fame is not experience in medicine but rather a citation in a Supreme Court opinion upholding public funding for private religious schools.
Heritage’s rhetoric shares deep financial ties with groups funded by the Koch brothers, the billionaires long connected to the anti-public school movement. In 2019, the Koch brothers recommitted their resources to decimating America’s K-12 public education system under the banner of school choice, a term often co-opted by anti-public school activists as a euphemism for policies exclusively favoring private and charter schools. Heritage is one of several groups and outlets leading the fight to undermine both LGBTQ rights and public education that are also tied to people and entities invested in both the political effort to promote private and charter schools and those schools themselves.
Another such outlet is The Federalist, which throughout 2020 and 2021 published numerous articles bashing public schools over the false claim they were teaching critical race theory and calling for Republicans to push pro-charter school policies.
The alarmism driven by outlets like The Federalist was subsequently used by Hillsdale College, a far-right Christian college with a history of hostility toward LGBTQ students, to expand its network of affiliated charter schools and right-wing K-12 curriculum marketed to private and charter schools. Hillsdale also has close ties with The Federalist — co-founder Ben Domenech has used the college to host his podcast, current Editor-in-Chief Mollie Hemingway is a senior journalism fellow at the school, and Executive Editor Joy Pullman is a Hillsdale alumna.
Recent articles from The Federalist have taken a similar tone as last year, albeit with a new boogeyman, attacking public schools for teaching “gender ideology” (a catchall term invented by anti-LGBTQ activists to malign any open discussion of LGBTQ identity) and with false claims that school libraries contained “pornography,” while calling for states to “adopt the school choice model.” The outlet does this while also explicitly promoting Hillsdale’s charter schools, which it ironically frames as a “no-politics” alternative to public education.
Chris Rufo, a figure who has likewise played a role in concocting anger against both the LGBTQ community and public school teachers, has followed a similar path. Rufo first tested his tactic of ginning up outrage by branding outmoded fears of diversity and inclusion under labels easily digestible by his audience last year with his fearmongering over critical race theory. This year he transitioned to spreading the false claim that LGBTQ people were “grooming” children. Rufo is also an ardent critic of public education and staunch proponent of policies favoring charter schools, saying in April, during a speech he gave to Hillsdale, “To get universal school choice, you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.”
Rufo is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank regularly involved in pushing anti-public school rhetoric whose chairman, hedge fund manager Paul E. Singer, has contributed heavily to charter schools and pro-charter school organizations.
Right-wing media opportunistically follow the lead, tying together anti-LGBTQ alarmism and anti-public school rhetoric
Seeing a chance to target teachers’ unions, malign public schools, and demonize the LGBTQ community, right-wing media are following the lead of Heritage and outlets like The Federalist, using appeals to “school choice” alongside anti-LGBTQ rhetoric to push a pro-conservative, anti-inclusion agenda.
Media outlets have hosted content from members of the Independent Women’s Forum, an anti-LGBTQ group also backed by the Koch brothers, following this formula. An op-ed titled “School choice can save children from radical gender ideology” appeared in the Washington Examiner in August and called for “Parents desperate to protect emotionally vulnerable children from cultlike indoctrination and secretive gender transitions” to “leave the public school system.” In October, Fox News’ Fox & Friends First hosted Nicole Solas, a senior fellow for the group, who called for parents to embrace “school choice,” saying that “the only way you’re going to avoid catastrophe with these gender cultists is to leave your school.”
Fox networks continued to amplify rhetoric jointly attacking public schools and LGBTQ inclusion. On the October 26 edition of Fox Business’ Kennedy, host Lisa Kennedy Montgomery used a story on a New Jersey school district defending its protections for trans students to transition into a segment on “School Choice in America.” The next month, during Fox News’ The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld said, “Republicans have to further cement themselves as the parents’ party, right, and let the Dems be the party of government interference between mother and father and child. Let them defend activists who pushed gender ideology in preschool, let them be against school choice and in-person learning. Republicans should be the pro-family party because it's working. When the left calls you racist, what do you call them? Groomers.”